My mother and father had no school in Italy, no church in Italy. They lived on a mountainside. They came here young, but had no friends, no school. They had broken a vow not to go to America that each of them had made to their parents.
My father was a laborer; he came first. My mother came after him, because she was having a baby. But when she got to Jersey City, the baby died. His name was Mario. Not long after that, they did something that is just not done by Italians—they had another child, and named him Mario, too.
So now the Depression is here, my father’s living in Jersey, he has no money, he has no special skill. He can work, and he’s strong, the strongest of human beings. Of course, all he could do was work. But there were no jobs. One of his friends had come to Queens, and found out that my father and mother and their child were in terrible trouble in New Jersey, and so this friend of my father’s went to the grocery-store owner that you see in that picture—a Jewish gentleman. My parents were allowed to live behind the grocery store—there was an upstairs, which they weren’t allowed to use at first. But the back of the grocery store had a toilet and a big black stone tub that was large enough to clean clothes in, or for my mother to take me by the back of the head, pin me between her two legs, put my head into the tub, and scrub my hair. Later, as my bald spot grew, I said, “Ma, that was you. You did that to me.” We slept behind the store with the toilet, that tub, and a range, and that was it. My father worked for seven years for the owner of the store. When my mother and father got the use of the second floor, the room in which they slept had a smoked-glass window, with the name of a dentist, Katz. They took the apartment without ever having that scrubbed, and so for all the years they used it as a bedroom, I was reminded that Katz the dentist had operated in that room, too.
The store did reasonably well, well enough so that eventually we could buy a little house in Queens. Once, my father, my brother, and I came home through this rainstorm and my father was aghast because the storm had uprooted this one beautiful tree. That tree meant everything to my mother and father because they were from the mountainside and the only thing that reminded them of where they were born was this one tree, and now that tree was uprooted. My brother stood there, and the wind was blowing, the rain was still coming down. He said, “Pop, it’s gone.” My father got furious. He was a very small man, much smaller than my brother, and he said, “No, we gonna push him up.” We didn’t know what he meant—he wasn’t making any sense. He went into the house and came back with some rope and a couple of chunks of wood that he was going to use to drive into the soaked ground, and he said, “We’re going to push him up.” The rain slowed enough so that we could get a rope around at the tip of the tree. And so my father and I were on one side, my brother was at the tip of the tree, pushing it, and we were pulling it, and damned if we didn’t get it to slide back into its hole, roots and all. Then, with a spade, my father shoveled the mud around the base of the tree, and rolled a couple of small boulders that were not far away to act as weights to keep the roots in place. We were ready to quit on that tree, but not my father. He just took one look and said, “We gonna push him up.” And we did.